Women’s History Month: The Legacy of the Fight over the 15th Amendment

African American Intellectual History Society  March 2, 2015

frederick_douglass_cc_img         sbanthony_ecstanton          patricia arquette

During the past week, Patricia Arquette’s comments during her Oscars acceptance speech have ignited debate across the internet. Arquette issued a rallying cry for equal pay for women, stating that women have done enough for everyone else; it’s time that gays and people of color support women. Her comments are problematic because they ignore the concept of intersectionality.[1] Arquette’s comments are also a manifestation of a long running conflict within the American women’s movement, the schism between white women of wealth and privilege, and women of color. Since March is women’s history month, it is appropriate in the midst of this controversy to step back and examine one of the earlier conflicts over this very issue, the fight over the fifteenth amendment. This conflict would pit longtime abolitionist and women’s rights activist Frederick Douglass against Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. 

During the beginning of Reconstruction, one of the key efforts on behalf of the African Americans was the securing of suffrage. Initially, abolitionists like Douglass, Stanton, and Anthony rallied behind the cause of universal suffrage so that both men and women, black and white, would be enfranchised. However, when the fourteenth amendment passed without a suffrage clause, the universal suffrage campaign was dropped in favor of a black male suffrage campaign. Stanton and Anthony vigorously opposed Black male suffrage. Their opposition would result in the severing of relationships with many of their black colleagues, especially Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Douglass described himself as a woman’s rights man. Douglass attended the landmark convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 and signed the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. He worked side by side with women abolitionists on numerous occasions. In the aftermath of the Civil War, he supported universal enfranchisement, but the brutal reality of Reconstruction forced him to reconsider his position. Douglass would support black male suffrage and the fifteenth amendment because he realized that without an amendment to guarantee suffrage for the black community, African Americans would lack any position or influence in the country’s political future. The initial years of Reconstruction saw numerous changes and reforms for African Americans. In essence, the momentum of the time was in the favor of African Americans. In the mind of Douglass and many others, this was the “Negro’s hour.” Douglass realized that if the change did not occur at this particular moment, it possibly would never happen.[2]

Douglass’s dedication to black male suffrage would not dampen his fervor for women’s rights. He maintained his dedication to the cause and participated in the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). The May 1869 meeting of AERA would prove to be the destruction of the organization. Most of the debate was over whether or not the organization should support the fifteenth amendment if it only referenced black men. Douglass argued that suffrage was needed for black men because they were being dragged from their homes and lynched. Someone in the audience would challenge Douglass stating that the same things were happening to black women; therefore, women needed the right to vote. Douglass’s response was that the ill-treatment of black women was not because they were women, but because they were black. In Douglass’s estimation, black women needed some form of representation for the racial violence and injustice inflicted upon them. In the midst of the tense debate, Douglass composed a compromise resolution which would welcome the fifteenth amendment and black male suffrage while also emphasizing their continued dedication to the creation of an amendment that would guarantee equal rights for all. Douglass’s proposal was endorsed by poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, but ignored by Stanton and Anthony.[3]

Stanton and Anthony fervently believed in their position. When black male suffrage became the focus of an enfranchisement amendment they shifted their tactics. Stanton would appeal to Democratic politicians by affirming their beliefs in black inferiority. In an 1868 editorial in her newspaper The Revolution she stated: “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for Lydia Maria Childs, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”[4] Her argument was that immigrants and blacks were uneducated and unqualified to vote while white women, of a certain class and privilege, were qualified. In another issue of The Revolution, when they listed reasons for opposition to the fifteenth amendment, they stated that it would result in women being dominated by inferior men. Ultimately, Stanton and Anthony would never agree with Douglass on this issue. The American Equal Rights Association was disbanded; the National Woman’s Suffrage Association was created to promote the Stanton – Anthony agenda.[5]

March is women’s history month. The rarely told fifteenth amendment conflict illuminates a long standing conflict in the women’s movement in this country, the denial of the diversity in the experiences of the American woman. The fifteenth amendment conflict is perhaps the most dubious aspect of the Stanton – Anthony legacy. Patricia Arquette’s statement, and its endorsement by people like Meryl Streep, promotes this legacy. A claim to advocate for equality while simultaneously ignoring the nuances of race, class, and gender perpetuates an elitist legacy. In the twenty first century this is a legacy we should leave behind.

[1] Intersectionality was a term created by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1980s to address how different power structures interact in the lives of black women especially race and gender.

[2] Philip Foner, Frederick Douglass, (New York: Citadel Press, 1969). Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass, (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1948). Waldo E. Martin Jr., The Mind of Frederick Douglass, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

[3] The Revolution, “Annual Meeting of the American Equal Rights Association,” May 20, 1869. May 27, 1869.

[4] Ibid., “Manhood Suffrage,” December 24, 1868.

[5] Faye Dudden, Fighting Change: The Struggle Over Woman Suffrage and Black Male Suffrage in Reconstruction America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Noelle Trent

UntitledNoelle Trent recently earned her doctorate in American history at Howard University. Her dissertation, “Frederick Douglass and the Making of American Exceptionalism,” examines how noted African-American abolitionist and activist, Frederick Douglass, influenced the development of the American ideas of liberty, equality, and individualism which later coalesced to form the ideology of American exceptionalism. Dr. Trent also holds a Master’s degree in Public History from Howard University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has worked with several noted organizations and projects, including the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Park Service, Catherine B. Reynolds Civil War Washington Teacher’s Fellows, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History. She has presented papers and lectures at the American Historical Association, Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Lincoln Forum, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. She currently resides in suburbs of Washington, DC.


Debunking the Civil War Tariff Myth

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter

The outbreak of the American Civil War is now more than 150 years past. All the while, the question of what caused the conflict continues to spark disagreement, this despite a longstanding consensus among specialists that slavery – a cultural, political, ideological, and economic institution that permeated (and divided) mid-19th-century American society – was the primary cause of the war. One of the most egregious of the so-called Lost Cause narratives instead suggests that it was not slavery, but a protective tariff that sparked the Civil War.

On 2 March 1861, the Morrill Tariff was signed into law by outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan to protect northern infant industries. A pernicious lie quickly formed around the tariff’s passage, a lie suggesting that somehow this tariff had caused the US Civil War. By ignoring slavery’s central role in precipitating secession and Civil War, this tariff myth has survived in the United States for more than a century and a half – and needs to be debunked once and for all.

In trying to make their case but lacking adequate evidence for the 1860-61 period, “Lost Cause” advocates instead commonly hark back to the previously important role that another protective tariff had played in the 1832 Nullification Crisis. They then (mistakenly) assume the political scenario to have been the same three decades later – that southern secession from 1860-61 was but a replay of the divisive tariff politics of some thirty years before. From this faulty leap of logic, the argument then follows that the Republican Party’s legislative efforts on behalf of the Morrill Tariff from 1860 until its March 1861 passage became the primary reason for southern secession – and thus for causing the Civil War.

Because of the unfortunate timing of the Morrill Tariff’s passage – coinciding closely as it did with the secession of various southern states – this has remained perhaps the most tenacious myth surrounding the Civil War’s onset, and one that blatantly ignores the decidedly divisive role of slavery in mid-century American politics and society. Accordingly, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has  witnessed a slew of ahistorical tariff-centered explanations for the conflict’s causation, articles like “Protective Tariffs: The Primary Cause of the Civil War,” which appeared in Forbes Magazine in June 2013. Although the article was quickly pulled from the Forbes website following a rapid response from historians on Twitter (#twitterstorians), this particular piece of tariff fiction still exists on the author’s website as well as in a local Virginia newspaper, the Daily Progress.[1]

Similar tariff-driven arguments for the war’s causation continue to be given voice in American news outlets, in viral Youtube videos, and even on a recent Daily Show episode: No, not by host Jon Stewart, but by that evening’s guest, Judge Andrew Napolitano, a FOX news analyst and NYC law professor. In response to Stewart’s question “Why did Abraham Lincoln start the Civil War?”, Napolitano answered: “Because he needed the tariffs from the southern states.”[2]

The Civil War’s tariff myth has somehow survived for more than a century and a half in the United States. Let’s put an end to it.

In debunking the tariff myth, two key points quickly illustrate how the tariff issue was far from a cause of the Civil War:

1. The tariff issue, on those rare occasions in which it was even mentioned at all, was utterly overwhelmed by the issue of slavery within the South’s own secession conventions.

2. Precisely because southern states began seceding from December 1860 onwards, a number of southern senators had resigned that could otherwise have voted against the tariff bill. Had they not resigned, they would have had enough votes in the Senate to successfully block the tariff’s congressional passage.

The Tariff Myth’s Transatlantic Origins

Okay. So the Morrill Tariff clearly did not cause either secession or the Civil War. Then how and why did the myth arise?

As I have recently explored in the New York Times (“The Great Civil War Lie”) and at greater length in the Journal of the Civil War Era, the Civil War tariff myth first arose on the eve of the bill’s March 1861 passage. But the myth did not originate in the United States – it first took root in Free Trade England.

Southern congressmen had opposed the protectionist legislation, which is why it passed so easily after several southern states seceded in December 1860 and the first months of 1861. However, this coincidence of timing fed a mistaken inversion of causation among the British public, with many initially speculating that it was an underlying cause of secession, or at least that it impeded any chance of reunion.

The tariff thus played an integral role in confounding British opinion about the causes of southern secession, and in enhancing the possibility of British recognition of the Confederacy. And thus “across the pond” the myth was born that the the Morrill Tariff had caused the Civil War.

Nor was the tariff myth’s transatlantic conception immaculate. As I’ve previously noted, it was crafted by canny Southern agents in the hopes of confounding British public opinion so as to obtain British recognition of the Confederacy:

Pro-Southern business interests and journalists fed the myth that the war was over trade, not slavery – the better to win over people who might be appalled at siding with slave owners against the forces of abolition. On March 12, 1861, just 10 days after the Morrill Tariff had become law, The London Times gave editorial voice to the tariff lie. The newspaper pronounced that “Protection was quite as much a cause of the disruption of the Union as Slavery,” and remarked upon how the Morrill Tariff had “much changed the tone of public feeling” in favor of “the Secessionists.”

The pro-North magazine Fraser’s made the more accurate observation that the new Northern tariff had handily given the Confederacy “an ex post facto justification” for secession, but British newspapers would continue to give voice to the Morrill myth for many months to come.

Why was England so susceptible to this fiction? For one thing, the Union did not immediately declare itself on a crusade for abolition at the war’s outset. Instead, Northern politicians cited vague notions of “union” – which could easily sound like an effort to put a noble gloss on a crass commercial dispute.

It also helped that commerce was anything but crass in Britain. On the question of free trade, the British “are unanimous and fanatical,” as the abolitionist and laissez-faire advocate Richard Cobden pointed out in December 1861. The Morrill Tariff was pejoratively nicknamed the “Immoral” tariff by British wags. It was easy for them to see the South as a kindred oppressed spirit.[3]

As a result, over the course of the first two years of the Civil War, the tariff myth grew in proportion and in popularity across the Atlantic, propagated by pro-South sympathizers and by the Confederate State Department.

Debunking the Tariff Myth

It would take the concerted efforts of abolitionists like John Stuart Mill, alongside Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to debunk the Civil War tariff myth in Britain:

The Union soon obtained some much needed trans-Atlantic help from none other than the English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. By the beginning of 1862, the tariff myth had gained enough public traction to earn Mill’s intellectual ire, and he proved quite effective at voicing his opinion concerning slavery’s centrality to the conflict. He sought to refute this “theory in England, believed by some, half believed by many more … that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of slavery at all.”

Assuming this to be true, Mill asked, then “what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery.” Yet, Mill noted, the Southerners themselves “say nothing of the kind. They tell the world … that the object of the fight was slavery. … Slavery alone was thought of, alone talked of … the South separated on slavery, and proclaimed slavery as the one cause of separation.”

Mill concluded with a prediction that the Civil War would soon placate the abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. That, as the war progressed, “the contest would become distinctly an anti-slavery one,” and the tariff fable finally forgotten.

Mill’s prescient antislavery vision eventually begin to take hold in Britain, but only after Abraham Lincoln himself got involved in the trans-Atlantic fight for British hearts and minds when he put forth his Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.

By February, Cobden happily observed how Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had aroused “our old anti-slavery feeling … and it has been gathering strength ever since.” […] And so, two years after the Morrill Tariff’s March 1861 passage, Northern antislavery advocates had finally exploded the transatlantic tariff myth.[4]

It only took the British public about two years to see through the tariff myth, and to recognize the centrality of slavery. In contrast – and tragically – for more than 150 years afterwards the same tariff myth has somehow continued to survive in the United States.

Dr. Marc-William Palen is lecturer in imperial history at the University of Exeter, and research associate at the U.S. Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is the author of “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013; “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy,” Journal of the Civil War Era (March 2013).

Follow on Twitter @MWPalen


[1] “Protective Tariffs: Primary Cause of the Civil War,” Daily Progress, 23 June 2013. See, also, Mark Cheatham’s critical response to the Forbes piece, “Were Tariffs the Cause of the Civil War?“, showing how slavery overwhelmingly dominated state secessionist conventions; and Phil Magness’s dismantling of both extreme ends of the debate in “Before You Start Claiming that Tariffs Caused the Civil War…” and “Did Tariffs Really Cause the Civil War? The Morrill Act at 150.”

[2] (If you must), see, et al., “Tariffs, not Slavery, Precipitated the Civil War,” Baltimore Sun, 6 July 2013; “Understanding the Causes of the Uncivil War: A Brief Explanation of the Impact of the Morrill Tariff,” Asheville Tribune; The True Cause of the Civil War,” Soda Head, 4 October 2010; “The Morrill Tariff Sparked War Between the States,” Madison Journal Today, 10 March 2014; “Real Causes of ‘The Civil War,’” Youtube.

[3] “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013.

[4] “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013.


Credit Rachel Levit

When Americans Lynched Mexicans

William D. Carrigan & Clive Webb

The New York Times    February 20, 2015

THE recent release of a landmark report on the history of lynching in the United States is a welcome contribution to the struggle over American collective memory. Few groups have suffered more systematic mistreatment, abuse and murder than African-Americans, the focus of the report.

One dimension of mob violence that is often overlooked, however, is that lynchers targeted many other racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, including Native Americans, Italians, Chinese and, especially, Mexicans.

Americans are largely unaware that Mexicans were frequently the targets of lynch mobs, from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century, second only to African-Americans in the scale and scope of the crimes. One case, largely overlooked or ignored by American journalists but not by the Mexican government, was that of seven Mexican shepherds hanged by white vigilantes near Corpus Christi, Tex., in late November 1873. The mob was probably trying to intimidate the shepherds’ employer into selling his land. None of the killers were arrested.

From 1848 to 1928, mobs murdered thousands of Mexicans, though surviving records allowed us to clearly document only about 547 cases. These lynchings occurred not only in the southwestern states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, but also in states far from the border, like Nebraska and Wyoming.

Some of these cases did appear in press accounts, when reporters depicted them as violent public spectacles, as they did with many lynchings of African-Americans in the South. For example, on July 5, 1851, a mob of 2,000 in Downieville, Calif., watched the extralegal hanging of a Mexican woman named Juana Loaiza, who had been accused of having murdered a white man named Frank Cannon.

Such episodes were not isolated to the turbulent gold rush period. More than a half-century later, on Nov. 3, 1910, a mob snatched a 20-year-old Mexican laborer, Antonio Rodríguez, from a jail in Rock Springs, Tex. The authorities had arrested him on charges that he had killed a rancher’s wife. Mob leaders bound him to a mesquite tree, doused him with kerosene and burned him alive. The El Paso Herald reported that thousands turned out to witness the event; we found no evidence that anyone was ever arrested.

While there were similarities between the lynchings of blacks and Mexicans, there were also clear differences. One was that local authorities and deputized citizens played particularly conspicuous roles in mob violence against Mexicans.

On Jan. 28, 1918, a band of Texas Rangers and ranchers arrived in the village of Porvenir in Presidio County, Tex. Mexican outlaws had recently attacked a nearby ranch, and the posse presumed that the locals were acting as spies and informants for Mexican raiders on the other side of the border. The group rounded up nearly two dozen men, searched their houses, and marched 15 of them to a rock bluff near the village and executed them. The Porvenir massacre, as it has become known, was the climactic event in what Mexican-Americans remember as the Hora de Sangre (Hour of Blood). It led, the following year, to an investigation by the Texas Legislature and reform of the Rangers.

Between 1915 and 1918, vigilantes, local law officers and Texas Rangers executed, without due process, unknown thousands of Mexicans for their alleged role in a revolutionary uprising known as the Plan de San Diego. White fears of Mexican revolutionary violence exploded in July and August 1915, after Mexican raiders committed a series of assaults on the economic infrastructure of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in resistance to white dominance. The raids unleashed a bloody wave of retaliatory action amid a climate of intense paranoia.

Historians have often ascribed to the South a distinctiveness that has set it apart from the rest of the United States. In so doing, they have created the impression of a peculiarly benighted region plagued by unparalleled levels of racial violence. The story of mob violence against Mexicans in the Southwest compels us to rethink the history of lynching.

Southern blacks were the group most often targeted, but comparing the histories of the South and the West strengthens our understanding of mob violence in both. In today’s charged debate over immigration policy and the growth of the Latino population, the history of anti-Mexican violence reminds us of the costs and consequences of hate.

Myth, Reality and the Underground Railroad

New York Times      February 27, 2015

disunion45On Feb. 24, 1865, William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the antislavery weekly The Liberator, published an odd column – odd, because the piece, written by the New York minister Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, had already appeared in the paper, less than a year before. But Garrison believed that the article’s point – about collective memory, and collective forgetting – was an important one, and with the war’s end in sight, he wanted to make sure his readers saw it.

“It is a very curious fact in the history of public opinion,” Sawyer wrote, “that the mass of people who never think or act with early reformers gradually come to persuade themselves, as the reformation goes on and grows popular, that they were always of that party, or at least sympathized with its spirit. … Twenty years hence, there will not be a man in all the North who favored secession, or cherished any sympathy with rebels! Even now it is rare to meet one who has ever wished well to slavery, or desired anything but its final abolition!”

Garrison and Sawyer were not alone in their concern. A year earlier, Garrison’s colleague Lydia Maria Child had remarked in a letter to The Liberator that “new anti-slavery friends” who claimed to have “always been anti-slavery” were “becoming as plenty as roses in June.” Unable to bring herself to challenge these assertions, Child confessed that she simply smiled “inwardly,” marveling “at their power of keeping a secret so long!”

After the Civil War, few Northerners appeared interested in keeping their antislavery sympathies — whether longstanding or brand-new — secret at all. As Lost Cause apologists and “plantation school” novelists waxed wistful about life in antebellum Dixie, a second set of postwar writers traded their own nostalgic tales about the days of slavery. But these mostly white Northerners did not craft stories of the loving relationships forged between masters and slaves on the bucolic plantations of the Old South. Instead, they chronicled the heroic exploits of abolitionists who steered fugitive slaves through the mysterious world of the Underground Railroad.

Newspapers from Iowa to Maine overflowed with melodramatic accounts of runaways and their Northern benefactors eluding slave hunters under the cover of darkness. Story after story captivated readers with references to special codes, false walls and hide-outs in attics, barns and cellars. “A secret cave behind the beautiful sheet of water know as Butler’s Falls …within a mile from the Ohio river, was the first place to which runaways were taken,” explained a special correspondent for The Indianapolis Freeman, who in 1891 sketched out the details of a shadowy trail that began near the Indiana village of Hanover. “All operations were carried on at night, and after a brief rest in the cave, the fugitives would be conducted … to another place of safety, and from thence to other points rarely if ever more than fifteen miles apart, each night bringing them nearer and nearer that longed-for haven, Canada.”

A painting from 1893 showing white abolitionists helping slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.

A painting from 1893 showing white abolitionists helping slaves escape along the Underground Railroad.Credit Library of Congress

The clandestine air that surrounded these illegal exploits only added to the romance of the Underground Railroad. “Their organization had no rules, no bonds, no by-laws,” reported a New York newspaper in 1881. “Its secrets were as well preserved as those of the Ku-Klux, or the Inquisition in the time of Torquemada.”

The term “Underground Railroad” had come into regular usage by the 1840s, just as the equally sublime but far more tangible network of steam locomotives was spreading across the country. “The Underground Railroad is in high flight, and doing a fair business here,” wrote the black abolitionist Martin Robison Delany to Frederick Douglass from Pittsburgh in 1848. But postwar portraits, such as H.U. Johnson’s semi-fictionalized 1894 history “From Dixie to Canada: Romances and Realities of the Underground Railroad,” stretched the metaphor to extremes. The Underground Railroad “extended its great trunk lines across all the northern states,” wrote Johnson. “It was most efficiently officered, and had its side tracks, connections and switches; its stations and eating houses all thoroughly well recognized by the initiated; its station agents and conductors…; its system of cypher dispatches, tokens and nomenclature.”

These stories captured the imagination of a young Ohio State University professor named Wilbur H. Siebert, who set out in the 1890s to write the definitive history of what he called “the Road.” A dogged researcher, Siebert pored over the recollections of abolitionists and their family members in newspapers and memoirs, reached out to hundreds of antislavery veterans and compiled the names of more than 3,000 railroad “operators,” almost all of them white men. Siebert published his findings in his influential 1898 book, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,” which, along with a handful of other works that he produced between 1896 and 1951, cemented the popular image of the Underground Railroad as “a vast network of secret routes over which fugitive slaves were passed along, chiefly in the night time, from the Southern States to Canada during a prolonged period before the Civil War.”

Although Siebert tempered some of his contemporaries’ hyperbole, he nonetheless took many Underground Railroad stories at face value. Undaunted by a dearth of antebellum documentation — most railroad activists had not kept records in order to protect runaways and themselves — Siebert relied on the reminiscences of “‘old time’ abolitionists” to fill “the gaps in the real history of the Underground Railroad.” The Ohio scholar offered a specious defense of these sources, maintaining that “the abolitionists, as a class, were people whose remembrances of the ante-bellum days were deepened by the clear definition of their governing principles, the abiding sense of their religious convictions, and the extraordinary conditions” under which they worked.

Siebert also disregarded responses that complicated his findings. “We had no regular route and no regular station[s] in Massachusetts,” the abolitionist William I. Bowditch told Siebert in 1893. Three years later, Thomas Wentworth Higginson added: “There was no organization in Mass. answering properly to the usual description of the U.G.R.R.” Yet Siebert characterized the Underground Railroad as “a great and intricate network” that reached from slave states like Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky to every corner of the North. And he reinforced this image by producing a series of detailed maps of the railroad routes, replete with trunk and branch lines, several of which cut across Massachusetts.

The Underground Railroad did exist, but it was not nearly as formal, extensive or popular as Siebert and company imagined. Post-bellum literature suggested that railroad “stations” could be found in every town and hamlet north of the Mason-Dixon line and that “men and women from every class, sect, and party” aided runaways. Yet abolitionists and their activities provoked widespread hostility in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Proslavery forces killed the abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Ill., in 1837. Twenty-four years later, on the cusp of the Civil War, Wendell Phillips was heckled off the stage at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston by an anti-abolitionist mob, which then chased the reformer through city streets.

Fort SumterThousands of slaves did, in fact, escape to the North between 1830 and 1860, and many of them benefited from the help of activists such as William Still, David Ruggles and Sydney Howard Gay during their journey. White and black reformers in frontier towns and east coast cities organized vigilance committees and other antislavery organizations to provide fugitives with financial and legal support as well as more covert (and frequently illegal) assistance. But these often ad hoc groups were not coordinated at the statewide or regional level, and many of them lasted only a short time.

Most fugitive slaves gained their freedom largely through their own efforts. Although a small number of individuals, including Louis Napoleon, Calvin Fairbank and, most famously, Harriet Tubman, ventured south to retrieve slaves, a majority of runaways made the harrowing journey north alone or with fellow fugitives.

Yet postwar accounts — nearly all of which were produced by white Northerners — tended to portray runaways as “passengers,” effectively reducing them to a supporting role in their own liberation. Some authors inflated the number of fugitive slaves that they had helped, while others neglected the work of black railroad operatives. Over all, they painted a picture of the Underground Railroad as a white-dominated enterprise in which runaways were spirited to freedom by their Northern guardians.

Veteran abolitionists, of course, had good reason to share their memories of the Underground Railroad. Some believed that by reminding Americans of the antebellum crusade against slavery they were bolstering the post-bellum campaign to protect the rights of freedpeople. But Underground Railroad tales could also be self-serving, a way for Northerners who had not participated in the antislavery movement to bask in the glory of the cause.

Even more troubling, many memorialists failed to connect their stories of the Underground Railroad to the postwar struggle for black civil rights. Instead, they served up what the historian David Blight describes as “a mythos of accomplished glory, a history of emancipation completed.” Just as Lost Cause ideologues strove to conceal the rise of Jim Crow — from segregation and disenfranchisement to an epidemic of lynching — behind a facade of Old South harmony, Northerners told “self congratulatory adventure tales” that implied that the nation had solved its racial problems decades earlier. In this way, they joined their Southern counterparts in turning nostalgia for life before the war into a refuge from the disturbing realities of the postwar racial landscape.

Sources: Liberator, Feb. 19 and June 10, 1864, and Feb. 24, 1865; Cleveland Leader, March 12, 1896; The Truth, April 24, 1881; Indianapolis Freeman, Oct. 31, 1891; North Star, March 3, 1848; The Elevator, Jan. 11, 1873; “The History of Clinton County, Iowa”; H.U. Johnson, “From Dixie to Canada: Romances and Realities of the Underground Railroad”; Wilbur H. Siebert, “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom”; William I. Bowditch to Wilbur H. Siebert, April 5, 1893 and Thomas Wentworth Higginson to Wilbur H. Siebert, July 24, 1896, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio Historical Society; David W. Blight, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”; David W. Blight, ed., “Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory”; Fergus M. Bordewich, “Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement”; John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, “Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation”; Eric Foner, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad”; Larry Gara, “The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad”; Graham Russell Gao Hodges, “David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City”; Stephen Kantrowitz, “More Than Freedom: Fighting for Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889”; Lowell J. Soike, “Necessary Courage: Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle against Slavery.”

Ethan J. Kytle

Ethan J. Kytle, the author of the book “Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era,” is an associate professor of history at California State University, Fresno. Carl Geissert is a graduate student in history at California State University, Fresno.

Rosa Parks, Radicalism, and Remembrance


African American Intellectual History Society       February 17, 2015

Its Black History Month, which means that mainstream society pulls out the iconic images of African American freedom fighters including Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks provides an interesting case study in how we commemorate African American history. She is frozen in our collective consciousness as older, respectable woman who, “had been pushed around all her life” and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Indeed, the moment that Mrs. Parks “decided” not to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus has become the symbol of the triumph of the black spirit over white supremacy. This moment, as Parks’s biographer Jeanne Theoharis noted, has become a “narrative of national redemption” in which the country portrays Parks as “an accidental midwife without a larger politics.” [1]

Indeed, Mrs. Parks led a textured activist life that has been largely hidden from public view. This is due, in part, to the fact the her papers (manuscripts, photos, etc.) have been caught up in “controversies around profit, control, and the use of her image.” Parks, in an effort to tell her story to future generations, donated many of her personal correspondences, letters, and memorabilia before her death. The collection, priced 6 to 10 million dollars in 2013, sat in storage because most institutions, particularly those that collect black history, could not afford to purchase it.[2] All the more remarkable then, that the public will be able to view Park’s archive this year at the Library of Congress. [3]

Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, heard about the papers and instructed his foundation to make what would become the winning bid for the collection. The foundation will loan the Parks papers to Library of Congress for ten years.[4] With the 1,500-item collection now publicly available, we will finally get a chance to hear Parks’s thoughts on her community, race relations, and politics. African American women are rarely the subjects of histories. And often, like Parks, we are only represented in a particular historical moment or one dimension of black struggle. For African Americans, access to Parks’s papers is a chance to see our history formally appreciated in the archive, an experience that is still all too rare.

The physical location of Parks’s papers is just as important as how they became available to the public. Housing her papers at a national, government sanctioned and sponsored archive, can represent a moment of national celebration and validation of black struggle. It can also reinforce state-sponsored narratives of black progress. The Library of Congress will incorporate some pieces from the collection in a exhibit called “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” From the title, it appears that Parks will be featured as a key figure in our collective and inevitable march towards achieving the liberal integrated American dream. The aspects of her life that don’t fit into this linear story line – her training at the Highlander Folk School, her criticism of gradualism in the black freedom struggle, her assertion that Malcolm X was her hero – recede from public view.[5] In the very moment that we celebrate the opening up of Parks’s remarkable life, the place in which we house her history possibly forecloses dynamic perceptions of her activism.

Parks’s importance in our national history and her critical role in the black freedom struggle cannot be disputed. But what is gained and lost by white control over the Parks collection and our ability to access her thoughts, ideas, and worldview through a repository designed to foster a national identity? Are we able to collectively shift our understanding her ideas, intellectual development and activist trajectory while encountering her within the walls of an institution invested in a particular narrative of her life? And, if a foundation has the ability to buy, sell, and lend Parks’s legacy as it sees fit, how do we understand the intersection of capitalism, black history, and the valuation of black life today? I don’t have the answers to these questions. And, last month, I argued that we need all the documentation of African American women’s lives that we can get. But if Black History Month is about remembering and celebrating African Americans, their achievements, and their contributions, we should also think about where the national remembering is taking place and who is deploying the images and narratives of remembrance.


The public can access Parks’s papers at the same moment in which African American women are leading Black Lives Matter protests and when activists are (again) asserting that black life, past, present, and future, is valuable. Parks’s archive and the histories that develop from it are linked to this struggle. Not only because Parks was more radical than our collective consciousness allows. But also because, through Parks, we can better understand how African American women engage in liberation politics, how respectability politics shapes black women’s lives and choices, and how she was one of the many African American women who have consistently worked at the grassroots level to assert the value of black life and humanity.

Parks’s role in the civil rights movement was no more spontaneous than contemporary protests. Both are part of a long, rich history of African American women activists who consistently fight the intersection of racism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy. Its time we recognize and remember Parks for her methodical dedicated radical activism as much as for her movement symbolism and no longer let institutions and foundations frame black struggle as individualist, respectable, progressive, male-centered, and “accidental.”[6] This seems to be a good use of the short time we have access to Parks’s archive in the short month dedicated to black history.

[1] Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013), ix, xi.

[2] Theoharis, The Rebellious Life, xv.

[3] Emmarie Huetteman, “Who Rosa Parks Was, Not Just What She Meant,” New York Times, February 5, 2015.

[4] Library of Congress Press Release, “Rosa Parks’ Papers to Reside at Library of Congress,” September 9, 2014; “Warren Buffet’s Son Buys Rosa Parks Archive,” The Detroit Free Press, August 29, 2014.

[5] Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, 207.

[6] Theoharis has developed a body of literature intent on reframing Parks. See: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and ““A Life History of Being Rebellious: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks,” in Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

Ashley Farmer

Farmer%20headshot Ashley Farmer is a Provost Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at Duke University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University.

Her manuscript, What You’ve Got is a Revolution: Black Women’s Movements for Black Power, is the first comprehensive intellectual history of women in the black power movement. The book introduces new and overlooked women activists into the history of black power, examines the depth and breath of their political and intellectual engagement, and shows the relationship between women’s gendered theorizing and the trajectory of the black power movement.

She is also the author of several articles about African American women’s black power activism and intellectual production and her research interests include African American history, gender history, and intellectual history. Her research has been supported by Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Texas-Austin and the Wisconsin Historical Society. It has also been featured on the History Channel. For more information visit http://www.ashleydfarmer.com or follow her on Twitter @drashleyfarmer



Equal Justice Initiative   February 10, 2015

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) today released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents EJI’s multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states during the period between Reconstruction and World War II. EJI researchers documented 3959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950 – at least 700 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.

Lynching in America makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity. Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period.

The report explores the ways in which lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the contemporary geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans. Most importantly, lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America. Lynching in America argues that is a powerful statement about our failure to value the black lives lost in this brutal campaign of racial violence. Research on mass violence, trauma, and transitional justice underscores the urgent need to engage in public conversations about racial history that begin a process of truth and reconciliation in this country.

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson. “The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”

The “Black Republic:” The Meaning of Haitian Independence before the Occupation

Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had "avenged America" after securing Haitian independence.

Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) famously declared that he had “avenged America” after securing Haitian independence.

This is the second entry in a series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti. The introduction to this series can be found here.

On January 1, 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines and his fellow generals met at Gonaïves to declare formally their independence from France. The Haitian Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the first republic governed by men of African descent in the Western Hemisphere stunned whites and blacks in the United States. White planters and their sympathizers denounced Haiti, inventing the phrase “the horrors of Saint-Domingue” to describe the violent process by which an enslaved people had risen up, overthrown their masters, and fulfilled the worst fears of a slaveholding nation.[1] African Americans, however, articulated a much different interpretation of the Haitian Revolution. For some, the act of self-emancipation in Haiti stirred their own hopes for freedom. For others, the creation of a “Black Republic” was a radical assertion of racial equality, an unprecedented opportunity for blacks in the Western Hemisphere to demonstrate their ability to prosper as citizens and leaders of a modern nation. For many, then, Haiti had a special mission—a mission endorsed by its own political leaders—to the entire world. 

Enslaved blacks in the antebellum South were quick to embrace Haiti as an emblem of black freedom. In his biography of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington noted that enslaved men and women knew “of the Haytian struggle for liberty” even if they were ignorant of everything except [their] master and the plantation.”[2] This was certainly true in the region of Douglass’s birth. One bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1821 recalled “old people speaking about persons going to Hayti” during his childhood. In particular, he remembered hearing a song about an enslaved youth who, “on account of bad treatment,” fled to Philadelphia before boarding a ship bound for Haiti. It went:

Poor Moses, poor Moses,

Sailing on the ocean.

Bless the Lord,

I am on the way,

Farewell to Georgia.

Moses is gone to Hayti.[3]

Moses, like some thirteen thousand other African Americans in the antebellum era, chose to leave the United States for Haiti. The United States was all slavery and “ill-treatment.” Haiti was freedom.

Free blacks in Philadelphia and other northern cities were no less enamored with Haiti. While some promoted emigration to that country, a greater number urged the United States to extend diplomatic recognition to it. In 1849, escaped slave and New York-based abolitionist Samuel Ringgold Ward lambasted white politicians who “refuse to acknowledge the independence of a Republic, the majority of whose citizens are black men, lest such an acknowledgement should offend negro haters in Washington.”[4] In Ward’s estimation, Haiti was not only a site where blacks could experience unparalleled freedom. Instead, it was a country that could prove wrong those who claimed that African Americans were unfit for citizenship because they could not claim a “legitimate” external nationality.[5] Consequently, Ward demanded that the United States finally acknowledge the sovereignty of a “Republic half a century old . . . that has done more to prove its capacity for self-government . . . than the United States.”[6]

The ideas about Haiti expressed by African Americans corresponded to the self-image held by Haitian elites. Believing that a mass influx of industrious African Americans would strengthen the economy of Haiti and help it win diplomatic recognition from the United States, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer, a veteran of the Haitian Revolution, promoted emigration in U.S. newspapers. In doing so, he assured African Americans that Haiti’s “wise constitution . . . insures a free country to Africans and their descendants.” Moreover, he guaranteed that “Providence has destined Hayti for a land of promise, a sacred asylum, where our unfortunate brethren will, in the end, see their wound healed by the balm of equality, and their tears wiped away by the protecting hand of liberty.”[7] Such bold claims emboldened African Americans, leading individuals like Moses to equate Haiti with black freedom and others including Ward to link Haiti to elusive rights of citizenship.

They also set Haitians and African Americans up for disappointment. By romanticizing Haiti, elite Haitians and their African American counterparts recognized an indisputable fact: a nation birthed in slave insurrection and governed by black people would always possess a unique standing in global affairs. But they also placed an unfair set of expectations upon Haiti and those citizens who would bear the burden of ensuring that their country existed not only in reality but also in symbol; that it would embody everything an idealized “Black Republic” could and should be. Given the political and cultural confines of the nineteenth-century West, such lofty expectations would prove hard (perhaps even impossible) to meet.

Next month: “Ask Forgiveness from Dessalines:” Debating Haitian Independence on the Eve of Occupation

[1] White Americans, particularly white southerners’, reaction to the Haitian Revolution receives a more extended treatment in Alfred Hunt, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 107-147.

[2] Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass (Philadelphia: G.W. Jacobs & Company, 1907), 144.

[3] Alexander Walker Wayman, My Recollections of African M.E. Ministers, or Forty Years’ Experience in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: A.M.E. Book Rooms, 1881), 4.

[4] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[5] My fellow AAIHS blogger, Patrick Rael, has, of course, captured these nationalist sentiments in his Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

[6] Impartial Citizen, August 15, 1849.

[7] Niles’ Weekly Register, July 1, 1820. For further reading on the African American emigration movement to Haiti, I recommend Sara Fanning, Caribbean Crossing: African Americans and the Haitian Emigration Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).


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